EDITORIAL: Long-vacant Marsh locations pose big challenge for neighborhoods

Keywords Editorials / Opinion

The demise of Marsh Supermarkets two years ago continues to vex neighborhoods across central Indiana, which are stuck with gaping anchor holes in their strip shopping centers.

It’s not just a matter of the negative aesthetics of having an empty big box. The loss of the anchor—and the foot traffic it brought—drags down other quality tenants, perhaps spurring some to leave for more vibrant locales. A struggling shopping center weighs on the whole neighborhood.

Those dynamics are on full display at the corner of West 86th Street and Ditch Road. The parking lot in front of the shuttered Marsh sits almost empty. This spring, longtime retailer Athletic Annex relocated to Nora. It’s hard to be excited by the recently arrived new tenant, a smoke shop.

These are challenging times for retail, and filling big-box spaces is particularly tough. There aren’t many thriving options. Groceries, with their steady foot traffic, are particularly desirable, but there are only so many to go around.

Indianapolis-based Kite Realty Group, which is racing to plug holes created by the demise of Toys ‘R’ Us and other retail closings around the country, considers refilling those spaces of such paramount importance that it dubbed its all-hands-on-deck initiative “Big Box Surge.” Even so, it’s yet to find a replacement for the Marsh that closed at its Traders Point shopping center at West 86th Street and Zionsville Road.

That backdrop helps explain why a developer recently unveiled an underwhelming plan to turn a former Marsh in Noblesville into a self-storage facility.

Not all of the dozens of shuttered Marsh stores that weren’t taken over when the chain auctioned its leases in June 2017 remain empty, of course. From a neighborhood’s perspective, one of the most satisfying outcomes was in Nora, where part of a Marsh became an Aldi.

But the reality is, there is no quick fix to the blight caused by shuttered Marsh stores. In retail, market forces rule. No matter how well a neighborhood organizes, or how aggressively leasing agents hawk space, a retailer is not going to sign a lease unless it’s convinced it can make good money operating a store there.

That’s why an ordinance passed by the Fishers City Council in December 2017 is so misguided. It requires that shuttered grocery stores remain supermarkets when they’re redeveloped unless the city gives special permission for another use.

The dysfunction of that ordinance now appears to be coming into play at East 116th Street and Allisonville Road. Kroger last year backed out of plans to open a massive Kroger Marketplace on the northeast corner—a project that was to be the centerpiece of Kite’s redevelopment of the Fishers Station shopping center, home to a former Marsh store.

It instead opted to keep running a much smaller store in a strip center on the northwest corner, but renovating it. By keeping Kroger, the owner of that center—who had vehemently opposed the ordinance—avoided calamity.

But shoppers are left with the smaller store. And while Kite is pocketing payments under the ground lease Kroger signed at that site, its Fishers Station has a gaping hole it’s powerless to fix.

Kroger—normally a stellar corporate citizen—deserves to be dinged as well. In the Marsh-store auction, it bought the leases for 11 stores but reopened only seven.

Brokers think Kroger scooped up the other four—all near existing Kroger stores—to block a rival from snagging them. The tactic was good for business, perhaps, but not good the community.

Filling vacant Marsh stores is tough enough without such hardball tactics.•

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